As anyone who has watched E.T. or The Sixth Sense will attest, one of the things that leaves a lasting impression is the question of how America finds such brilliant child actors. Yet those who have enjoyed Netflix’s marvellous film about the 1939 Sutton Hoo excavation, The Dig, won’t fail to have noticed that Britain seems to have unearthed one of its own.
Young Archie Barnes, who plays Robert, the son of Edith Pretty, owner of the land where the Anglo-Saxon ship burial was found, certainly didn’t have an easy task. He had to hold his own with some of the giants of British acting: Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, Ken Stott, Johnny Flynn and Lily James. It’s an astonishing line-up.
In one scene, 14-year-old Barnes goes toe-to-toe with Fiennes, who, as the self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown, tries to offer him some consolation when Robert realises his mother is dying. “When my father died, everyone said I had to look after my mother, and I failed…” the boy weeps. “I failed.”
“Robert… we all fail,” Brown tells him. “Every day. There are some things we just can’t succeed at. No matter how hard we try.”
It’s a deeply moving performance from both actors. After it, Fiennes went over to him, Barnes tells me, and said, “Oh Archie, you should definitely be an actor.” It was a rare moment. Fiennes was the one actor that Barnes was nervous of meeting, having grown up watching him as Voldemort in the Harry Potter films and as M in the Bond movies, but he says: “The entire time, even the first day I met him, he wasn’t Ralph Fiennes. He was Basil Brown. He was always in character.
“I don’t think I’ve really met the proper Ralph Fiennes,” he laughs. “But I’ve really met Basil Brown.”
Barnes is chatting to me over the phone from his home in south London, where he lives with his parents and two siblings. It’s been a strange year, as it has for everyone else, but whenever lockdowns have allowed, he’s been going to Warner Bros Studios in Hertfordshire to film a role in the upcoming reboot The Batman, in which he plays the mayor of Gotham’s son.
I ask him if he ever gets nervous, before the scene with Fiennes, for instance? Yes, he says. They filmed it late, about 10.30 or 11 at night, and “a lovely costume lady called Martha” had given him some blankets. “There were no chairs in the room, so I lay on this table with the blankets over me and fell asleep,” he says, “and woke up right before I had to go on set. I was shattered, which I think helped my performance, because in the scene I had to be tired and upset.”
There was more to it. Just before the scene began, he had been looking at photos of his grandfather, who was dying of dementia and had only a few months to live. His tears in the scene were real. “He was the best grandad,” he says. “We were able to give him a lovely funeral the week before lockdown in March. Lockdown has been hard for my grandma,” he adds, “I’ve really wanted to visit her, but we haven’t been able to.”
There’s a sensitivity to Barnes that comes across even down the line. When he was younger, he says, “I had a huge fear of going on to stage. When we had school plays, I’d be standing on the side of the stage, either crying or not showing my face.” He’d managed to overcome it by the time he was nine, when he played King Herod and won the Drama Cup at his school. Since then, acting has been a passion.
He does not go to a performing arts school, but an independent day school in Croydon. His father Oliver Barnes is in the music industry, his mum Helena Calvert is an actress; she was Clare Owen in Heartbeat and Faye Clark in Emmerdale. Barnes got his start as Dandy Dan in Bugsy Malone on stage at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2016, and was Bert in the Old Vic production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons that starred Sally Field, in 2019. In between, he fitted in a small role in the film Patrick (2018) – alongside Beattie Edmondson and a rather talented pug.
Shooting The Batman is an altogether different proposition. “It’s a huge set, we travel from one warehouse to another, there’s lorries everywhere, people everywhere,” he says. It’s an enormous production compared to The Dig, which was shot on location not at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, but Norney Grange in Surrey. The biggest obstacle to filming The Dig, he says, was rain, because they had to film in September and October, and a few days were lost altogether to the weather.
It did have its exciting moments, though. When a Second World War plane flies over the excavation site, clipping the trees before being submerged in a lake, he says, “I had to play shocked in the scene, but I was shocked in real life, because it was flying so low to the ground, I thought it was going to crash.”
We talk about the scene in which Robert cycles all the way to Brown’s house to persuade him to return to the Sutton Hoo dig, after the site has been brusquely commandeered by archaeologist Charles Phillips. “It was quite hard to ride,” he says, “because it was an old-fashioned bike, and the handlebars came right down to my knees – I had to be careful when turning, so I wouldn’t fall over.” Didn’t the brakes work? “One of the brakes worked a bit, but no, not really, so I had to use my feet to slow myself down.”
It raises his performance to the category of stunt work when a delivery van races past him on a country lane, which now looks altogether hairy on screen. “There was a certain point where I was able to stop, so I wouldn't get hit by the lorry, he says, “so I felt safe.” After it, when he arrives red in the face and out of breath at Brown’s farmhouse, he says, he had been running up and down the hill outside the farm before the take.
He appears younger than his years in The Dig. “He was born very prematurely,” his mother tells me. “He arrived nine weeks early, and we were at Guy’s Hospital for about five weeks at the very beginning of his life. It was a terrifying time.”
She is the one who helps him prepare and takes him to auditions; he had lots for The Dig, but she remembers the final one, at casting director Lucy Bevan’s house, when everyone came out of the room crying. “I think they realised they’d found their Robert,” she says.
I ask Archie about some of his other co-stars, including Mulligan, who plays his fictional mother. “Carey was like a mum on set,” he says. “She cared for everyone, she was just a lovely person.” He played with her two young children sometimes, when they came to the filming. Flynn, he adds, was really fun to work with, and taught him a new magic trick every time they were on set together.
Barnes hopes he can turn his talent into an adult career as an actor, and has been auditioning a lot, remotely, via videos shot at home. For the past four years, he tells me, he has wanted to be in a Spider Man movie – “Tom Holland is a huge inspiration to me” – and used to be obsessed with parkour.
Since he got into skateboarding two years ago, he’s added to his movie wish-list. “Any free moment I can, I’ll go and skate,” he says, “I’ve got a group of friends who I skate with all the time.” He’s been really missing his classmates during the pandemic but still escapes to skate each night after “staring at a screen all day” doing online lessons.
He’s also been watching the brilliant 2001 documentary about skateboarding’s evolution, Dogtown and Z-Boys. “I was like, ohh, I’d love there to be a film about skating, because if I was in it, and had to skate, it would be an easy part to play,” he says.
Nearly all of his friends have messaged him since The Dig was released to tell him how much they loved the film. They may get a jolt, though, if they ever study the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. He’s been to see the Sutton Hoo treasures at the British Museum and visited the original site, where he was transfixed by photos of the real-life Robert Pretty. “If we study Sutton Hoo,” he says, “I’m going to have a massive boost over everyone else, I know the whole story back to front.”